When I attended University, I was so lucky to have Natale Tedesco as a professor of Italian literature. To me, a young student, he looked very old, even though he wasn’t even 60 at the time.
I remember him disciplined, authoritative. Students who showed up late for class were destroyed with a simple look. When he read the poems of Lucio Piccolo, however, he forgot severity and, instead, vibrated with passion. He had met the poet in person, and had written extensive essays on him to illustrate the richness and beauty of Canti Barocchi and other works. But he did not tell usanything about the life of the baron and barely mentioned the fact that he had written his poems in the aristocratic solitude of a villa in Capo d’Orlando, a place of voluntary exile for Lucio and also for his brother Casimiro and his sister Agata Giovanna. He didn’t say a word about that trio of cultivated and extravagant people.
Giuseppe and Teresa
Giuseppe Piccolo di Calanovella, the father of the three, came from a family of the Sicilian nobility. Despite their ancient title, the Piccolos were not among the most prominent aristocrats, also because they had always preferred to remain in the serene tranquility of their estates between Naso and Capo d’Orlando.
“Life”, on the contrary, was in Palermo, and young Giuseppe was looking exactly for that. So he played all of his cards and eventually convinced his parents. They bought a house in via Libertà, the boulevard a la parisienne that had been traced in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like any twenty-year-old, Giuseppe wanted to have fun and so he plunged headlong into the fin de siecle worldliness of Palermo. The city in those years was the capital of the Florios and their court of entrepreneurs and aristocrats. Teresa Mastrogiovanni Tasca Filangeri di Cutò belonged to the ranks of the latter.
From the length of her name it is easy to tell that her blood was blue, very blue. The princess was also beautiful, educated, rich. In one word: perfect. Giuseppe set his eyes on her and Teresa noticed him too. The two got married in 1890 and settled in the beautiful house in Palermo, ready to take their place in the city of the Florios.
It was considered quite normal for young men to chase after beautiful girls and spend their time in dancing, gambling, attending theater, horse racing and so on. After the wedding they would settle down. If, regrettably, they kept some liasons, nothing had to leak out and, above all, it couldn’t be anything serious. The ladies in question should be dismissed with discretion, after not too much time.
The wives on the other hand, should act like nothing had happened, and the husbands would “repay” them with precious gifts. Unfortunately, Giuseppe did not grasp the importance of this unwritten law and, instead of devoting himself to his family and his affairs, continued the cheerful life of before, carefreely squandering his and his wife’s money. Teresa, as she had been taught, for a long time ignored Giuseppe’s behavior. Until the day when he, following the cheating husband’s worst cliché, ran away from home with a much younger dancer.
The exhile in Capo d’Orlando
Teresa was not born a princess for nothing. Apparently unperturbed, for a while Teresa continued her life in Palermo as before, taking care of the children she had had with Giuseppe: Agata Giovanna (1891), Casimiro (1894) and Lucio (1901).
Around 1930, definitively disgusted by the obligations of the Palermitan worldliness, she sold the house and moved the whole family to Capo d’Orlando, in the villa overlooking the Aeolian Islands which, until then, had been the setting for summer holidays. Her three children, despinte being adults, did not think for a moment of opposing their mother’s desire or letting her go alone. On one hand, they had inherited her shadowy character, on the other they were all three determined not to let themselves be chained in a marriage, with the risk that it would fail like that of their parents. Thus they moved.
The villa today is a “museum house” where everything is kept as if the inhabitants have just left and possibly are about to return. Libraries full of books and magazines, many in foreign languages, testifing multiple interests spanning from cooking to esoterism, a fortepiano that no one ever dared to play after Wagner performed there, paintings, trinkets and photographs, ceramics and embroideries.
The three siblings remained here forever, even after the death of their mother in 1953. Accustomed to the splendid isolation they had imposed on themselves, they received very few guests, among them the cousin Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a frequent visitor to the villa and very close to his cousins, with whom he had a close correspondence, signing himself “the Monster”.
He accompanied Lucio, in 1954, to the literary convention of San Pellegrino to which the latter had been invited by Eugenio Montale. The story of the meeting between the two poets, the affirmed and the newcomer, alone deserves an article, as does the trip to San Pellegrino which finally gave notoriety to Lucio Piccolo’s poems. On that occasion, Tomasi di Lampedusa finally decided to write the long imagined novel that, after his death, would become one of the greatest Sicilian classics. In the villa you visit the guest room in which he used to sleep.
An eccentric trio
Agata Giovanna, the elder sister, lived for her garden. Without ever leaving Capo d’Orlando, she managed to create an amazing park, having seeds sent from every corner of the planet. From Brazil, for example, came those of a Puya berteroniana, the first in Italy of this species, for which Agata Giovanna recreated the exotic habitat. If today you can walk among hydrangeas and cycads, wisteria, water lilies and jasmine, it is thanks to her.
When she was not in the garden, she was in the kitchen, where she enjoyed experimenting new dishes for the two brothers, putting together the Sicilian recipes she had learned from her mother and the French inspiration that came from a great-grandmother who had lived in Paris.
The three met for dinner, because Casimiro had reversed day with night, got up at sunset and spent his nights painting and trying to intercept the countless ghosts that according to him populated the villa, from those dating back to the time when there was a Roman settlement on the hill, up to the spirits of the animals buried in the small cemetery of the dogs and cats that had been arranged in the park.
His watercolors are an important part of the villa’s heritage, a collection of dreamlike images full of goblins, kobolds, fairies and variously exotic characters, the result of a fantasy fueled by nocturnal conversations with an occult world. On the contrary, many of his photos (now exhibited in the “Casimiroteca” inside the villa) have a naturalistic and realistic imprint, with images of insects, details of plants, and of inhabitants of Capo d’Orlando. There are also some more original photos, such as those taken by Casimiro when still living in Palermo, very different from what the early twentieth century iconography prescribed.
And then there was Lucio, the poet thanks to whom I met the admirable trio. The little one of the family, who called his elder brother His Excellency and composed music for pleasure, practically never left the villa. His poems were published when he was already mature, after the aforementioned San Pellegrino convention, and earned him unanimous acclaim even at an international level, with admirers such as Ezra Pound and Orson Welles.
After his death in 1969, Casimiro and Agata Giovanna set up in their will the institution of the “Fondazione Famiglia Piccolo di Calanovella” which still today guards the villa and the garden and collects the signatures of thousands of visitors in a register.
The photos (with the exception of the portrait of Tomasi di Lampedusa, by D. Mauro for CreativeCommons) are the property of the Piccolo Foundation and have been granted, free of charge, exclusively for the publication on this blog. Reproduction prohibited.